I’m not sure if Americans realize this, but the United States is one of the most surreal places for a foreigner to travel to. American culture, particularly cinema has an unparalleled global reach. I watch more American films in a year than my country has produced in its entire history. I’m not complaining, many of these films are very good (many are not). It means that when we foreigners (or “aliens” as the Department of Homeland Security so eloquently terms us) arrive in America we carry with us a trove of expectations and prejudices grafted to our DNA by a lifetime of exposure to the corpus of American cultural output. When I first arrived in San Francisco, stepping onto Market Street from the Powell BART station, I was not greeted with the disorientation that usually befalls a traveler in a foreign country. Rather, it was an odd cocktail of the familiar and the unfamiliar as I saw in the flesh, a city that I had known for years through the lens of Hitchcock, Coppola and … ah … “Full House”. I was oddly at home in a place I had never been.
New York, I think is the apotheosis of this phenomenon. While it must be one of the world’s most filmed cities (excluding LA which seems to spend most of its time masquerading as somewhere else), it is also geographically small, giving one the impression that over the last century every inch of Manhattan has at least glossed over by someone’s camera. When I traveled to New York for the first time over Spring Break, I initially felt oddly familiar with the city. My cab ride from the airport was much like the one from “Everyone Says I Love You,” complete with a singing Sikh cab driver. My first experience of New Yorkers was much like this scene from “Midnight Cowboy.”
It was like New York, was the city I had always known, but had never visited and now that we were together it felt as though we had never been apart.
As I spent more time in the city, I almost became convinced that Manhattan was trying to recreate my favorite movies around me. As I stood in the MoMA line some indulgent, obnoxious professorial type opened up behind me about Marshall McLuhan — exactly like in this scene from “Annie Hall.”
As minute after minute, museum after museum, I found myself experiencing the most profound cinematic deja vu, I began to wonder whether my familiarity with New York was not so much a result of the glut of New York movies, but rather the skill New York filmmakers have at capturing their city. Woody Allen especially, writing his annual cinematic love letter to New York seems to capture the city’s beauty and romance while mercilessly parodying its intellectual and cerebral cultures. The Met, the MoMA and the Guggenheim felt like an extended casting call for Allen’s next movie, as intellectual after intellectual loudly proclaimed their insights into Gauguin, Cezanne and Van Gogh. Much like this scene, which was filmed in the Guggenheim for 1978’s “Manhattan.”
As I ventured beyond the Upper East Side, the square mile of Manhattan where the vast majority of Allen’s films are shot, I started thinking about another vein of New York cinema. While films like “Manhattan”, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” or TV’s “Sex and the City” present a beautiful, glossy view of the city, there is that other New York, of Martin Scorsese, Elia Kazan and John Cassavetes. For these directors, New York is not so much the city where dreams come true, but a terrifying place where dreamers come to be consumed by their nightmares. For the star struck tourist, this New York was somewhat more difficult to find. Taxi after taxi I (thankfully) met no Travis Bickle and far from being a socialist parable as it was in Elia Kazan’s “On the Waterfront”, the docks outside Manhattan seem to have become a global epicenter for hipster culture. Things got a little complex in Little Italy, a place that seemed to sell itself out by trying too hard to recreate it’s cinematic appearance. Ridiculous bunting hung from rooftops, ATMs had tricolors stuck to them — even my Australian waiter seemed in on it, presenting his best Italian accent (with limited success) as he took my order. Mulberry Street carried the marks of a civic plastic surgeon, like on old star turning to the knife in a last ditch attempt to recreate her glorious youth. It was a far cry from it’s glory in this brilliant scene in “The Godfather Part II.”
I confess that I am somewhat disappointed that the down-and-dirty New York seems to have been overtaken by the fairytale version. The gentrification of large parts of Manhattan has come at the expense of a vibrant, if somewhat unfriendly culture. In my naïve cinematic conception of the city, the two visions achieved a sort of yin and yang harmony; the weaknesses of one illuminating the virtues of the other. Wandering down “Wall Street” on my last day, I remembered Oliver Stone’s seminal film “Wall Street,” and Mary Harron’s unforgettable “American Psycho.” Maybe this is the sort of gritty New York that has replaced Scorsese and Kazan’s. Perhaps the really unsavory characters have traded in their yellow cabs for desks on Wall Street? The tough-guy mantra of “Are you talking to me?” looks to have been replaced by Gordon Gekko’s “Greed is good”.
Though I have must still admit that I am nostalgic for characters like Travis Bickle, Terry Malloy and Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, I guess that’s the thing about a city like New York. If there’s one constant to its century-long domination of popular culture, it is its simultaneous tropes of change and continuity. It is a city never at ease with itself, from Allen’s cerebral malaise, to Kazan’s social unrest, to Stone’s vision of all-consuming capitalism. If New York’s filmmakers shock in their gift for frankly and accurately sharing their hometown with the world, the city shocks them back, by shifting and changing as fast at her filmmakers are able to record her.